Throwing in the shirt on the Eagles season
After you see your team lose at home to a team quarterbacked by Ryan Tannehill, you try anything to bring some positive mojo.
In my case, I went out into an old clothes trunk in the garage and dug up a 2004 Philadelphia Eagles NFC Champion T-shirt for the trip to Lincoln Financial Field for Sunday’s game.
I had never worn the sweatshirt, purchased off the clearance rack as afterthought after that season. The tag was still on it.
But instead of bringing back glowing memories from that Super Bowl season, the Iggles’ effort Sunday against the Buccaneers instead conjured up memories from two seasons prior. I repressed many memories from that period, but I can tell you for sure there were some parallels to Sunday: In both cases, a Birds team widely thought to be better lost to Tampa on a cold day in South Philly. That time it was Joe Jurevicius who kept running … running … running (In my nightmares, I’m Eagles LB Barry Gardner running forever in Jurevicius’ shadow on a gridiron looping for eternity); this time it was Doug “Muscle Hamster” Martin loping endlessly — for a total of 235 yards on the ground, the third-highest single-game total by one player against the Eagles. A team that’s in its 83rd season of existence.
The difference of course, is that game in January 2003 was the NFC championship and this week’s was a mere regular-season matchup between two teams that appear to be headed toward an early offseason.
I didn’t think about what’s known as Black Sunday in Philly sports until my friend Justin and I got to the upper deck of the Linc and we walked past the Seasons Pizza stand outside Section 219. That’s where a woman was standing, wearing a Ronde Barber jersey. Hardcore Iggle fans know what that name means.
Moments later we are in line by section 223. Hanging on a wall is a giant photo of Donovan McNabb holding the Halas Trophy in 2004. The shirt he and Brian Dawkins are wearing after beating future Eagles QB Michael Vick and the Falcons on a much colder January day. The shirt is the same as my sweatshirt I’ve dug out of storage — the shirt version sits in the same trunk. If today doesn’t go well, maybe I’ll get that shirt out for next time. OK, now I’m back in the right mindframe.
Justin stops to get a $6 cup of coffee — there’s no nondairy creamer, which is a big deal for him since he’s lactose-intolerant — and we’re at our seats just before the national anthem. I sit down and give thanks that the 1.5 Dolphins fans who occupied the two seats to the right of mine the previous week are not back. In the row in front of us, the lowest row in the section, there are only four people sitting. Nine seats are empty. I look around after the anthem — about a quarter to a third of the stadium in empty, and it’s 1 p.m. It’s not that cold.
The Linc’s still-nameless PA announcer announces Mark Sanchez and he gets mostly cheers but a hearty helping of boos. (The Iggles don’t do individual player introductions, which looks more and more like part of Chip Kelly’s Big Brother/Orwellian stranglehold on the team and less like a pro-unity measure.)
Less than a minute into the game, DeMarco Murray fumbles after gaining 1 yard. The ball sits untouched beside the scrum for a moment before it’s picked up at the Philly 24 by defensive end Jacquies Smith, who takes off for the end zone as quickly as a 6-foot-2, 260-pound lineman could. But defensive ends by definition are not good at holding on to footballs, and Smith is stripped by tight end Zach Ertz. Fellow TE Brent Celek falls on the ball, erasing Murray’s mistake. The play is upheld on review — though the replay on the Linc video board appears to show Smith might have been down by contact before he fumbled.
So the Birds begin fresh from the 14 — right back where they started the game. Six plays later they’re at the Tampa 39, using a mixture of dink-and-dunk runs and short passes to the tight ends — a formula suited to Sanchez’s capabilities.
The seventh play fits that mold, too; it’s a quick slant to the right to Josh Huff, who catches the ball and then catches the Bucs secondary flat-footed on a 39-yard TD.
The Iggles have moved 86 yards and needed only 2 minutes, 26 seconds. It’s Kelly’s offense at its finest. Little do we know it’s the last time we’ll see it work even remotely well for the next three hours.
But let’s rewind a moment. The Eagles D does force the Bucs to punt on the next possession, and after a Philly punt it appears the Birds have forced a three-and-out from the Tampa 29. On third-and-6, Tampa QB Jameis Winston’s deep pass down the right side is incomplete. One problem: Brandon Graham was offside on the play. Given a second chance, and needing only a yard, Winston pitches the ball to RB Doug Martin, and he isn’t even touched until Nolan Carroll/Cromwell drags him down at the Philly 8. For the first time, the almost 70,000 in the stadium sees how overmatched the Eagles D is.
Not that the offense isn’t. On the next drive, Sanchez throws two incompletions for a three-and-out. The Bucs need only five plays to move 59 yards, and it’s 14-7 on a TD catch by Vincent Jackson. The exhortations begin from the upper levels, barely a quarter into the game.
” I hate Lovie Smith!” yells a woman sitting over the exit to the concourse. Given the tone of her voice, I’m guessing she can be heard throughout the stadium.
The Iggles take over at the 22, and on third-and-7 Sanchize throws an out pass to rookie Nelson Agholor. One problem: Agholor ran an inside pattern.
It’s too much for some to watch, and an exodus to the concourse begins. As the Eagles punt, I hear from my left side “We suck!” Can’t disagree.
Many of those who took their leave don’t see the Birds go three-and-out on their next two possessions. The really lucky ones miss the next play after that, when Martin takes a handoff at the Tampa 15 and runs through the middle of the line without much trouble at all from the Eagles D. Carroll/Cromwell catches up to him just inside the Philly 30, but Martin stiff-arms arm and ultimately disposes of him before Connor Barwin, of all people, pushes Martin out of bounds at the 1. There’s an official right on top of the play the whole way, and he misses Martin grasping Carroll/Cromwell’s face mask multiple times. That call was supposed to be a “point of emphasis” this season. Not that it would’ve mattered much …
Winston throws a TD pass moments later, and the voice perched above the exit pipes up: “He stole lobsters! He stole lobsters!”
The Eagles drive for a TD in six plays on the next possession, and suddenly there’s hope again. The Bucs, however, stick them with a 13-play drive that included two conversions on third down and one on fourth down (Martin again).
Taking over with 1:05 on the clock, the Iggles manage to chip their way to first down at the Tampa 33. Then it’s incompletion, incompletion, interception. Typical Sanchez, who stares down Brent Celek before trying to force the ball to him.
The Bucs use up 10 minutes of clock to begin the second half with another TD pass from Winston, and the Linc begins to empty out. As the fourth quarter starts, it’s so quiet you can hear radio man Merrill Reese’s voice echoing from the speakers in the concourse.
It’s all over but the shouting.
The shrill voice to my left screams: “You couldn’t stop my grandmother! … Gimme a Zoloft.”
A man in the row behind me: “I see this and think, ‘What’s Brady going to do to this squad?'”
It takes a lot to make me leave a game with more than 10 minutes to play. But after Sanchez throws his second interception, Justin and I bolt. There’s nothing left to see except the piles of garbage in the parking lots, which are more interesting than the pile of garbage on the field. (We miss the pick-6 by Sanchez on a badly misguided screen pass a couple of minutes later.)
The Eagles’ next game is in 20 minutes.
The 2004 NFC champion sweatshirt has been put back into storage in the garage.